Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Where Were You In '62? A Look-Back at 'American Graffiti'

Where the gang meets: Mel's drive-in

Directed by George Lucas, and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, ‘American Graffiti’ has stood the test of time as  an extremely entertaining and enjoyable film. It’s a film that stays with you for life; especially if you first saw it when you were the same age as the characters that are portrayed in the film. You will either remember -- for example --  where you were living, or -- what theatre it was where you first saw it. Or who you saw it with. Or what year of school  you were in when you first saw it – trust me: ‘American Graffiti’ has that kind of effect on a receptive audience. Made on a miniscule budget when George Lucas was a struggling film school geek, driven by Francis Coppola’s belief in the project, and featuring a cast, that, with the exception of Ron Howard, no one had ever heard of, I would argue that ‘American Graffiti’ is an ideal example of  American independent film at its most vital and creative.

Back in the days before the Ewoks, Princess Leia, or Luke Skywalker existed, George Lucas first  wrote a screenplay about a night in the life of a group of teenagers in a small California town. Unfortunately, no studio was remotely interested in his project, and financial backing was difficult to obtain. Finally, with the assistance of Coppola, Universal studios expressed a  tentative interest.  Thanks to the subsequent collaboration with  screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, as well as casting director Fred Roos, Lucas got the green light from a studio that had no confidence in the project, much less any interest in how it would be made, or received by a mass audience. Lucas ploughed ahead anyway, and the result was a totally enchanting portrait of the lives of a group of young Californians against a tantalising backdrop of America’s loss of innocence: the end of the first chapter of American rock and roll, and the beginning of the nightmare of the war in Vietnam. But the greatest enjoyment of ‘American Graffiti’ is that it captures the tentativeness, joy and despair of growing up in a way that doesn’t patronise adolescents. This makes it a virtual fountain of nostalgia  for those of us who are older, but remember  what it was like to be on the verge of adulthood, believing we had the capacity to achieve anything we chose to do in life.

Built upon a number of storylines which are ‘free-standing’, the film’s narrative structure would today be considered ahead of its time.[1] By free-standing, I mean that there are several self-contained stories within the narrative; a group of two or more characters share the same story, but are not included in others. This prevents audience interest from flagging, with so many things going on, unlike a more enclosed narrative which contains only one story that caters to all of its characters. Hence we have Steve’s story (played by Ron Howard) as he tries to convince Curt to leave ‘this turkey town’ with him, to pursue their lives  further on the east coast. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) has his own story, as he aimlessly wanders the town at night, hitching a ride in the backs of other people’s cars as they cruise around to celebrate the end of the school year. Terry the Toad (Charlie Martin Smith) also has his own story. He is looking after Steve’s car, and picks up a pretty girl named Debbie (Candy Clark) for a night of somewhat downbeat, but funny adventures. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is the elder of the group, an expert cruiser who complains about the  ‘slim pickins’ of the current drag and is finagled into picking up an eleven year old girl who gets him into all kinds of trouble.

  Legendary casting director Fred Roos auditioned hundreds  of young performers for the main as well as minor parts in ‘American Graffiti’, and apart from Ron Howard, known for his television work, most  of the performers were unknown to the audience. This was a stroke of casting genius (or maybe just a matter of not having the budget to pay big salaries to the performers). To have picked better known faces would have compromised the film’s freshness and turned it into a gawking parade with the audience. The film was shot on location in Petaluma, California over 27 nights. There are no daytime scenes at all. A cast member recalls how, after 27 straight nights of shooting it wasn’t hard to act being tired, when everybody actually was – tired. [2] 

Terry and Debbie on the prowl for good times
The film was completed properly in post-production. Walter Murch was responsible for the brilliant soundtrack of at least twenty songs from the era that began with the birth of rock and roll to the death of Buddy Holly, the emergence of the Beach Boys, and the pre-dating of the British invasion in the United States. Instead of a regulation score, the music is used  in a subjective fashion, in order to gain audience empathy for the emotions of the young characters. [3] The soundtrack becomes an indispensable part of ‘American Graffiti’, in a way that is unthinkable to most other movies, especially those that use mickey-mouse scoring as a way of filling up dead time on-screen.

Universal Studios continued to be un-cooperative with Lucas until it dawned on them that maybe they had a hit on their hands[3] The film-maker arranged private showings and persuaded the lower echelons of Universal to attend. They all loved what they saw and word-of-mouth escalated about the film. ‘American Graffiti’  grew to be one of the biggest moneymakers in the history of the studio. [4] The film’s arrival in Australia for example,  was heralded with a lot of publicity, so the studio must have started taking an interest in it.  It had done better than  expected when it was first released in the United States to mainly positive reviews. [5]

Wolfman Jack without his melted popsicles
 Whilst  ‘American Graffiti’ was a big hit in its day, I would argue it has become less well known as the years have flown by. George Lucas went onto bigger things; Coppola became embroiled in the making of ‘Apocalypse Now.’  Perhaps its greatest claim to fame has subsequently been the fact that Harrison Ford, who became a famous star, has a very small role, and he became better known than the other cast members who had the larger (or main), roles. Also, because it was so popular on first release, it was not a well-known fact at the time, that ‘American Graffiti’ was made on such a small budget, and everyone concerned with the project had only modest ambitions for it to succeed. [6]

I think that when you live with a film for so long, it becomes hard to remember, or understand, what your first reactions to it originally were. I only started out as a humble member of the audience, and wasn’t meant to be writing essays, unless they were about the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  You know what I’m saying? There are some things you are made to love, and there are others you aren’t.  I don’t recall exactly what it was I liked the most about about ‘American Graffiti’. But since then it’s just been an accumulation of positive thoughts and feelings, ever since I first bought my own copy on video.  So, if you haven’t seen it at all, or just haven’t seen it in ages, take a look (or another look.)  And for me, taking the time out of  my Christmas break to write this post will have been worth it. Enjoy!!

The above citations are taken from the Making of documentary contained on the freely available Universal DVD.

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